Executed in 1976, White Breathing is one of an important and rare group of room-sized floor installations by Bruce Nauman, with other examples being featured in both the Panza Collection at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York and the Glenstone Museum, Potomac.
Produced during a moment of intense creative activity and rapidly evolving artistic practice, Nauman's sculptures have helped to inform new approaches to space, movement, material and human perception.
Whilst 'Minimalists like [Donald] Judd wanted to be in control, Nauman wanted precisely not to be - he was bent on the experience of discovery' (J. Finberg, Art Since 1940: Strategies of Being, London, 2000, p. 316). In White Breathing the artist presents the viewer with fourteen steel rhomboid blocks, finished with alternately rugged, ferrous red surfaces and smooth, industrially milled planes assembled across the floor of a large empty room. Each of the steel blocks is located with precision according to a set of three detailed drawings elaborated by the artist. In the first, the blocks are photographed in situ, demonstrating the situation and orientation intended for each. In the second drawing, the blocks are illustrated in a sequence of movements from their initial position to their final resting point. In the final drawing, Nauman details the ratio of distances required to install the work in rooms of different dimensions. These drawings themselves are not merely ancillary support but an integral part of the sculpture, paying testimony to the 'performance' carried out in the production of the work. For each block, Nauman configured a position by 'rolling' and 'shifting' each solid relative to the other, creating a unique geometry with the centre line of the room. In visiting the installation, the viewer is invited to witness the traces of the artist's actions, as well as experience the effect of their own movements around the space.
When combined with movement, White Breathing creates a powerful and disorientating optical illusion. Together the steel rhomboid blocks deeply distort the cuboid space of the classical gallery, the floor no longer appearing flat or uniform, but somehow irregular and twisted. As the viewer surveys the installation and moves throughout the room, each cluster of two or three steel blocks forms a new coordinate in an almost musical or mathematical system. Placed axis-to-axis, or side-to-side, each group of blocks suggests 'shifting perspectives and ambiguous movement' as if 'coming together and falling away at the same time' (M. Auping, 'Metacommunicator', ed. M. Auping, Raw Materials, London, 2004, p. 14). To the untrained eye, the steel solids themselves transform, mutating from regular, cubic blocks to rhomboids through a process of optical foreshortening created by the visitor's movement. As Kenneth Baker observed in 1977: '[Nauman's floor pieces] enforce a sense of one's specific position and its importance in all perceptions for one's knowledge that the blocks were rhombohedra could not correct for the visual distortions occasioned by movement within that space' (K. Baker, 'Bruce Nauman at Castelli, Sonnabend and Sperone Westwater Fischer', Art in America, March-April 1977,
In White Breathing, the viewer is further confounded by the artist's suggestion of 'positive' and 'negative' space. Situated like isolated cutouts in an expanse of empty space, the blocks appear like discarded elements from a now absent, parent sheet of steel. Building upon his earlier concrete and fibreglass mouldings including A Cast of the Space under My Chair 1965-1968, and Platform Made up of the Space Between Two Rectilinear Boxes on the Floor 1966, Nauman was challenging the preconceived notion of what is considered 'inside' or 'outside' in the creation of a sculpture. Instead of the Minimalist's neat dichotomy, Nauman was promoting a new and 'anti-rational' sculpture refusing to prioritise either category. In this respect, White Breathing is the ultimate 'parody of the Minimalist obsession with the formal organisation of space' (N. Benezra, 'Surveying Nauman', ed. N.
Benezra et al., Bruce Nauman, Minneapolis, 1994, p. 15).
Upon one's first encounter, White Breathing appears to be an exercise in seamless Minimalist execution and industrial precision, with the constituent steel solids celebrating clean lines, planar surfaces and geometric serialisation. With closer inspection however, the work reveals itself as a powerful subversion of such concerns. In place of Judd's 'exquisitely tooled rarefied containers', Nauman created a series of steel solids, rendered alternately with a highly polished, milled finish and a defiantly rough, organic, richly ferrous surface (R. Serra quoted in D. Judd, 'Some Aspects of Colour in General and Red and Black in Particular', Artforum 32(10), Summer 1994, p. 113). Raw and rugged, the tawny brown of the unfinished steel creates a stark and purposeful contrast to the single, smooth, silvered surface exposed to the viewer in each cluster. It is a visual tactic that shatters the illusion of material perfection so esteemed by Minimalism.
Through these visual functions, Nauman seeks to engage the viewer in a new experience of space, promoting an awareness of human perception. For the artist, his 'calculation is not primarily concerned with the invention of form, but with the precision with which he lures the viewer's glance into a trap in order to repel it again. The formal logic of the object is not in itself of value but results from its function for the viewer' (S. Holsten, 'Enigmatisation - a method', Bruce Nauman 1972-1981, Otterlo, 1981, pp. 86-87). In this respect, the artist reveals his own fascination with phenomenology, behaviourism and in particular the tenets of 'Gestalt' psychology. As Nauman explained, in works such as White Breathing he was engaging in what he described as 'examinations of physical and psychological response to simple or even oversimplified situations which can yield clearly experiencable phenomena' (Bruce Nauman interview with Joan Simon, 'Breaking the Silence' Art in America 76(9), September 1988, p. 14 quoted in N. Benezra, 'Surveying Nauman', ed. N. Benezra et al., Bruce Nauman, Minneapolis, 1994, p. 28).
These are important themes for Nauman, and ones that he first explored in his architecture and corridor installations of the early 1970s. In Corridor Installations (Nick Wilder) 1970, the artist disorientated his visitors with a collection of six illuminated and unlit corridors of differing widths. Three of these corridors were passable and three were not, with an inaccessible room at the end of one passage. Installed with a live video recorder the viewers saw themselves being monitored by the artist in an uncomfortable reversal of roles. In Double Steel Cage Piece 1974, Nauman frustrated the visitor with another inaccessible chamber, this time at the heart of a dramatically scaled, steel cage. The viewer was forced to watch from the perimeter with no means of ever entering the centre.
In 1975, Nauman created the first of his series of floor installations. Instead of permitting only selective access to the work, the artist offered the viewer the latitude to explore at will and without restriction. In Diamond Mind (Diamond Mind Circle of Tears Fallen All Around Me) 1975, Nauman created six, unadorned, sandstone blocks, situated in an irregular circle. The freedom and open space afforded by this configuration was itself bewildering for the viewer. The title is an elegant play on words reflecting the transformation of each block's shape from square to diamond through the visual distortions of the human mind. It also establishes a figurative element, as if Nauman's blocks might undergo metamorphosis into a pool of human tears. In Forced Perspective II 1975, part of the Panza Collection of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Nauman congregated together 36 rhomboid blocks of varying sizes and rotations on their axis. The resulting effect of the enclosed room and densely packed solids was dizzyingly claustrophobic, as clearly intended by the work's title. In White Breathing, Nauman offers the purest expression of his concept. With only fourteen blocks assembled and without any unifying symmetry or immediately recognisable pattern, the work remains enigmatic. Indeed the elusive title serves to enrich and complicate the interpretation of the installation. It is perhaps interesting to speculate on the connection between the title and the sculptural assembly. White Breathing could suggest some comment on white noise, the multifrequency background-chatter that fills space with latent sound, or otherwise the phenomenon of hoary, winter's breath, freezing white for a few short moments in a cold environment, shortly after becoming invisible.
Seen from an elevated position, White Breathing recalls a city lying some distance below, or perhaps an urban planner's scaled model of a city. Certainly the precision of the urban planner or mathematician is invoked in each of Nauman's carefully measured drawings. There is nothing incidental about these affinities, as Nauman himself studied mathematics in the early 1960s before electing for a career in art. As Nauman has commented '[whilst] I didn't become a [mathematician], I think there was a certain thinking process which was very similar and which carried over into art. This investigative activity is necessary' (B. Nauman interview with I. Wallace & R. Keziere, Vanguard (Canada) 8(1), February 1979, p. 16, quoted in N. Benezra, 'Surveying Nauman', ed. N. Benezra et al., Bruce Nauman,
Minneapolis, 1994, p. 15).
Nauman's integration of his large-scale drawings into the final assembly and exhibition of his work firmly elevates his written text to the status of art, a project that he has consistently returned to with his neon works. This is evidently the case with White Breathing, where the sculpture cannot or may not exist without the unique formula presented in the artist's hand inscribed drawings. In this respect, Nauman keeps faith with the words of his contemporary Sol LeWitt in his Paragraphs on Contemporary Art (1967) who suggested: 'What the work of art looks like isn't too important. It has to look like something if it has a physical form. No matter what form it may finally have it must begin with an idea [it is the] intervening steps - scribbles, sketches, drawings, failed works, models, studies, thoughts, conversations [that] are of interest. Those that show the thought process of the artist are sometimes [as] interesting [as] the final product.' (S. LeWitt, 'Paragraphs on Conceptual Art', Artforum, June 1967).